The Daly News.Friday. ember 1.199
Most of our food plants were imported long ago
Since the first man inhabited the
Virgin Islands. plants were impor-
tant to his survival, The Indians
brought plants with them as they
traveled from South and Central
America to the Caribbean.
Some plants were brought to the
Virgin Islands by Africans who hid
the seeds from slave traders. Seeds
for the historical boobab tree on St
Croix particularly were hid in
slaves' hair because of its spiritual
powers and food value.
Throughout history, plants and
animals were introduced from one
place to another. In fact. the majori-
ty of our food, including sweet
potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins.
peanuts, corn. broccoli and many
other vegetables as well as fruits
and grains that we buy today origi-
nally did not come from America.
The rootstock on which many
U.S. peaches are grown originally
was collected in China in 1898. The
navel oranges that created a Califor-
nia industry were from Brazil. A
wild oat that has resulted in one of
the most disease-resistant oat vari-
eies ever developed was found in
Israel in the 1960s.
Many of these plants were
imported to the United States by
explorers, plant taxonomists and
others who were interested in plant
breeding and the botanical values of
plants. President Thomas Jefferson
himself was interested in plant
responses to climate and studied the
phenology of garden plant.
Car L Willdenow (1765-1812).
an early pioneer of plant geography.
observed that similar climates pro-
duce similar vegetation types even
in regions thousands of miles apart .
Rudy O'Reilly Jr. a botanist and
the only native Virgin Islander in
this field, dedicated his life to the
study of plant taxonomy.
Plant ecology has been studied
since the beginning of time. Man
hunted, gathered and mastered the
knowledge of the distribution of
wild food and forage plants that
Herbalists learned that different
species of plants had healing, nar-
cotic or hallucinogenic qualities.
Women known on St. Croix as
the "weedwomnn" in the old days
gathered medicinal plants from the
countryside to sell in the market on
Friday and Saturdays. Also. the
ecology of plants has always been a
major prt of Virgin Islands culture.
For example. the jumbic beans or
bead vine leaves were and are still
used today for coughs.
Yet. this plant is deeply rooted
in our culture. The seeds of the
plant were placed in lamp oil to
keep jumbies from coming into the
house. The story goes that if you
did not have jumbic seeds in your
lamp, you have to walk in backward
into your house. If you walk in
frontward without jumbic seeds in
your lamp. thejumbie will come in.
however. some native plants of
the Virgin Islands are threatened
and probably some already arc
extinct because of the importation
of many exotic plants. This is a
serious threat to the ecology of
native plants in the Virgin Islands.
Loads of exotic plants are
shipped into the Virgin Islands.
Some of them will compete with
native species and eventually take
over native habitat, threatening
native plants in the wild.
Furhermore, many exotic plants
are imported with pests on them
which further threaten the ecologi.
cal balance of the environment.
To many people, exotic plants
mean good business. The problem
is. many of them threaten agricul-
ture and the nursery industry in the
Virgin Islands. Also. there might
not be natural predators in the wild
to combat the pest problem.
This is why, whenever you trav-
el, your baggage is checked, and
certain plants arc not allowed in.
Believe me. if the United States
did not have strong regulations to
protect the agriculture industry, we
would not enjoy the variety of food
we have today.
St. Croix was once a major sugar
cane producer. Back then. sugar
cane was not allowed to enter the
islands unless for research purpos-
es. This law is still in effect
Tan Tan is a classic example of
a plant that was imported. The plant
was imported as forage feed for ani-
mals. Today. the plant is an ecolog-
ical disaster and considered a seri-
onu weed pest.
I encourage nurseries to grow
and propagate native species. It is
better for our environment and it
helps maintain our native genetic
Some exotic plants have their
place in our environment, but first
one must understand the genotype
and phenotype of plants before
Olasee Davis. who holds a mas-
ter of science degree in range man-
agement and forestry ecology, is a
St. Croix ecologist. activist and